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Joanna Smith, founder of an ed-tech company that helps schools curb chronic absenteeism, was thinking about how to pivot her company to provide services in a remote learning setting as many brick and mortar schools transitioned online last year.

In April 2020, her company, AllHere, launched several new features to battle problems exacerbated by Covid-19, including an Artificial Intelligence-powered two-way text messaging system, Chatbot, for kids who weren’t showing up to class regularly. Chatbot allows teachers to check in with families and provides 24/7 individualized AI support for struggling students. Families can also log on to the platform to get confidential health care referrals or help with computer-related issues.

AllHere isn’t the only AI-powered technology startup that expanded last year. According to Stanford University’s 2021 AI Index, more than $40 billion was invested in all AI startups in 2020. Researchers at the Digital Promise-led Center for Integrative Research in Computing and Learning Sciences (CIRCLS) believe that over the next five to 10 years, AI in the education space will see a significant growth.

A CIRCLS report, called “AI and the Future of Learning,” breaks down what education leaders and policy makers need to know about AI in education, and how to effectively use it to support students and teachers.

“Start from what is good teaching and learning. And not “from what AI can do for me.”

Jeremy Roschelle, principal investigator at CIRCLS

Researchers and report co-editors Jeremy Roschelle, James Lester and Judi Fusco write that they anticipate “AI will come to greatly impact teaching and learning dramatically in the coming years.” They urge educators to begin planning now for “how to best develop and use AI in education in ways that are equitable, ethical, and effective and to mitigate weaknesses, risks, and potential harm.”

A panel of 22 experts in both AI and education convened last year to look at the strengths, weaknesses, barriers and opportunities involving AI in education, and the challenges going forward after the pandemic, said Roschelle, principal investigator at CIRCLS. The assembled group also discussed various new design concepts for how to apply AI in education.

Experts say what they’ve learned this past year of school shutdowns has also forced them to think more critically about equity and biases within the ed-tech field and how learning technologies are used to address racial inequities.

Fusco, co-principal investigator at CIRCLS, said that while researchers are thinking about the future as they create tools to help schools, “educators are on the ground, dealing with situations that no one anticipated and needing tools to help them [now].” CIRCLS researchers are thinking of ways to connect the two groups and consider “what educators might need to know from the researchers,” she said.

Roschelle added that the focus on AI ed-tech should be on “supports, and tools that assist teachers.”

New tools could include an AI-powered virtual teaching assistants that help teachers to grade homework and provide real-time feedback to students, or that assist teachers in “orchestrating and organizing social activity in the classroom,” Roschelle said. The AI tools might be rigorous performance assessments, virtual reality programs, voice- or gesture-based systems, or even robots that help kids with academic or social skills.

What’s important, according to these experts, is that, as more money pours into the AI field, companies must ensure that any tools they develop for schools are human-centered.

“Start from what is good teaching and learning,” Roschelle said. And not “from what AI can do for me. Can we get smarter about how we take the resources we’ve got, and equitably enable everyone to have good teachers?”

This story about AI in education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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